Word! earlier this month featured film poems (this is not a regular occurrence). Essentially the poem is read and displayed line by line with relevant images shown as a slide show. The advantage is that a poetry reader can see the words, hear them read and, if the images have been chosen with care and sensitivity, they enhance the poem, which, for the most part is what happened at Word!
They can be made fairly cheaply if you have a digital video camera which can record or editing software which allows you to add a sound file during the edit. The films can be made either by making a series of shots or in one take if you have presentation software from which you can record a slideshow.
There are downsides though:
Selection of Images
Here the poet runs into the same problem as film adaptions of novels or stories. When reading from a page, a reader creates the visual images to accompany the text in their own mind informed by their own imagination and experience as well as the words on page. If the reader then sees images chosen by someone else (even if that someone else is the poet), they may not coincide with the images the reader created.
The quality of the images matter too. This isn’t about resolution or the quality of the camera or the monitor the film gets viewed on. It’s about where the images are sourced. Stock images may not specific enough to the poem or a great image for line two may not sit so well with the images used for lines one and three. The images also need to work with the text to complement or provide a contrast. Spare pen and ink images could work well with dense, concentrated text. Sparse text might work better with deep, resonant images. Poets who are also visual artists have an advantage here. I hope I don’t have to remind readers that copyright applies to images as well as poems.
The poet also has to be aware how much the chosen images funnel or guide the reader in interpreting your poem. Reading off a page or in hearing the words read, the reader creates their own images. However, in seeing a film poem, the reader is directed by the images selected to accompany the poem. If the reader has already seen the poem on a page or heard the poem, and the film images don’t coincide with their created images, the reader may disengage. Even if the reader hasn’t seen the poem before, the images may not correspond with their reading of the poem.
Images and Text
There needs to be sufficient contrast between the text and images for the text to be readable. Where the images are busy or multi-coloured, it may be best to have a plain coloured box for the text. If you have grayscale or black and white images and black text, consider using a separator (a box or horizontal/vertical line) so the distinction between text and images is clear.
Where the text is used either on top of or as part of the image, make sure the text doesn’t obscure a key part of the image and, likewise, ensure the image doesn’t obscure the text.
The images do not replace the text so the text needs to be of sufficient size not only to read but so the balance between text and images is kept.
This isn’t about the mechanics of recording or the quality of the sound (which I’m not qualified to comment on) but rather how the listener will hear the reading alongside reading the poem and seeing the images.
The poet has one job: reading the poem. The reader has two: listening to the poem and processing the accompanying image. Frame each line/image with a pause to give the reader chance to catch-up. If you have detailed, multi-layered images your reader will need more time.
Think about the pacing of your reading. You poem may be about a sprint but if you try to gabble through a sonnet in less than thirty seconds, your reader won’t have time to catch what you’re saying and certainly won’t process your text and images at the same time. Aim for a reading pace slightly slower than normal and resist the temptation to speed up at the end of a line.
Add breathlessness as a sound effect after your poem rather than during your reading. In fact, it’s a good idea to keep reading and sound effects separate. Use sound effects as punctuation rather than trying to read over them. Some listeners find it difficult to differentiate between foreground and background noises and if the poet makes it difficult for the audience to hear, the audience will switch off.
Don’t act. Readings of poem where the poet has tried to act out the poem invariably sound hammy, corny and distracting. That doesn’t mean switching to a monotone either or ironing out an accent. Aim towards a narrative voice as if you are telling someone a story guided by the voice of the poem. Your marathon poem may start determined, slacken and become disillusioned halfway through and then pick up optimism towards the end with your finish line in sight.
Be aware of ‘noisy’ clothing. Jewellery can click, leather creak and buttons clash. Unintentional sound effects are distracting.
Don’t kiss the microphone, if you’re using one. You need to be reasonably close to the microphone but the microphone will pick up wheezes, sighs, throat clearances, whistles of breath, tongue clicks and lip smacks. None of these might be audible while you are recording, but they can be heard on playback and can drown out the words for an audience. This is why it’s never a good idea to skip rehearsals. You’re not just practicing reading the poem but also learning about the rhythm of the poem, the pace you’re comfortable reading at and where to breathe.
It might be possible to edit these vocal sounds out but it’s better not to have them in the first place. Aim to keep the microphone around 15 – 30cm from your mouth and point the microphone either below or above rather than directly in line with your mouth. This balances between avoiding picking up background room sounds and stopping proximity effect from making your voice sound muddy. Consider using a pop filter which will help reduce the popping sound caused by plosive consonants. Put your microphone on a mouse mat to cut down on reflective sound from hard surfaces. Before recording, check you’re comfortable with the position of the microphone and that you’re not hunched over it so you can still take deep breaths.
Whether you’re using a microphone or reading directly to a video camera, run a few rehearsals first. If you’re not reading from memory, check you can see the text you’re reading from and you can read without creating unnecessarily noise such as rustling papers or a squeak of a finger scrolling up a screen. You may not be able to hear these, but the microphone will pick them up. It may be preferable to record one image and line at a time and connect them at the editing stage rather than doing the whole poem in one take.
The medium should not get the better of the message. A good spoken word performance might temporarily lift a mediocre poem just as an interesting slide show of images might enhance a mediocre poem. But, in both cases, once the text of the poem is separated from the images and/or the performance, it will fall flat if the poem’s not good enough.